Wednesday, November 26, 2014
The Books That Last Over Time
In my teenage years I embarked on a self-improvement project, part of which was to read good books. At that point, I didn’t figure I was ready for the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even the Victorian authors, but I did think I could handle American fiction.
So in an attempt to put together a list, I decided to lean on expert opinion and buy American books that had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I figured that those books had been vetted by smart people at the time and surely were worth reading. And besides, they’d probably look good on the bookshelf.
Armed with that list, I went to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena to begin building my library. Imagine, then, my surprise, when I discovered that most of them were out of print and unavailable. At this point, it was less than half a century since the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded, yet some of the honored books had sunk without a trace.
Julia Peterkin? Caroline Miller?
To look at some of the titles and authors on the Pulitzer Prize list from 1918 to 1940 is to get a sense of the fleeting nature of literary fame. Here’s a partial list of winning books and authors:
His Family by Ernest Poole, Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia M. Peterkin, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, The Store by T.S. Stribling, Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, and Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis.
Maybe one of those books or authors will enjoy a comeback, but right now you look at that list and say to yourself, I wonder what the competition was like. Well, in 1929, when Scarlet Sister Mary (now unfindable) won the award, a fellow named Hemingway wrote a book called A Farewell to Arms, which you can still buy today in any bookstore.
The Pulitzer committee didn’t get it entirely wrong. Also on the list are books by Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber, all of whom are at least somewhat known and read today. But the only two books on that list that are widely known and read 75 years later are Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
The Mysteries Lasted Longer
An interesting sidelight to that Pulitzer list is that a couple of those forgotten authors wrote mysteries. I’ve never so much as seen a copy of T.S. Stribling’s The Store, but I own his Clues of the Caribees, a selection of mystery short stories that’s actually pretty good.
And I did read John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, which is a decent period piece. But to the extent that Marquand is still known today, it’s probably for his Mr. Moto mysteries.
All this serves as a reminder that every book is subject to the test of time, and the failure rate is high. I read Honey in the Horn, which I think was about early settlers in Oregon, and I can’t remember a single detail about it. But even though it’s been more than 40 years since I read The Grapes of Wrath, I can still recall the Dust Bowl scenes, the entry into California, and the farm labor camps in the Central Valley. What I remember of the two books is probably a good indicator of why one lasted and the other didn’t. It’s one thing to impress your contemporaries, but it’s tough to fool posterity.